Randy Robles witnessed the FOX News-hyped, rock-concert crowds of the first tax-day Tea Party protest first hand, hoping it would appeal to his fiscally conservative leanings. But standing in the crowd on April 15 last year, he realized quickly that it didn't. Last Saturday afternoon, the 27-year-old full-time janitor sat nervously in a meeting room at San Antonio's Grace Coffee Café for the inaugural meeting of the city's Coffee Party USA. This time, instead of being one of the crowd, he's one of the organizers.
"Driving here today, I was thinking, 'OK, this is real now,'" said Robles, who is working his way — in fits and starts — toward an anthropology degree. "We want everybody to come together regardless of party — leave that at the door. Come in, we’re all Americans, we can get together and solve this if we talk about it.”
The Coffee Party USA began after Maryland resident Annabel Park, venting on her Facebook page, offered, an alternative to the limited government-themed Tea Party rallies: “Let’s get together and drink cappuccino and have real political dialogue with substance and compassion.” A fan page followed the status update, and fans flocked to it. Some, like Robles and Sergio Mares, a 26-year-old San Antonio college recruiter, even volunteered to lead local chapters.
“It’s something special,” Mares said. “Seeing the rhetoric the Tea Party uses — mostly negative — it doesn’t really represent the America that I see or the America our soldiers are fighting for. I liked what the Coffee Party said about the government being the collective will of the people, which I think is accurate. Otherwise, why do we vote?"
March 13 marked the movement’s official kick-off day, with more than 350 meetings nationwide, and several throughout the Lone Star State. Of the San Antonio chapter's 536 Facebook fans, Mares expected 25 attendees at the first meeting. He underestimated by a few people, some of whom, like 58-year-old Jerry Moriarty, had just learned of the event a few hours prior during their morning internet reading. “We have a blank slate,” Mares told them. “We have no platform. Today is about discussing what direction we want.”
Mares knows that if coffee is the opposite of tea, and the Tea Party has a conservative bent, the public will quickly assume that the Coffee Party is a home for disaffected Democrats. “That’s a misconception right now,” he said. “We aren’t any wing of the Democratic Party — not liberals, progressives, or moderates. We are strictly down that middle road.”
That may be true, but there certainly seemed to be some consensus among those that showed up at Grace Coffee Café. “I suspect everyone in here voted for Obama,” said retired World War II veteran Ralph Bender, getting no disagreement. “I also suspect we are all disillusioned.” By a show of hands, the group also unanimously supported including a public option in healthcare reform legislation.
The room was only booked for two hours, and by the time everyone had gone around, introducing themselves, explaining their presence, and airing their grievances, only a few minutes remained. Those present were encouraged to call their representatives and sound off on healthcare. Scrambling for something more tangible to come out of the meeting, Edwin Einstein attempted to get the group to pass a resolution saying, “Reasonable healthcare is a right not a privilege.” He was told that this meeting was not about passing resolutions, it was about introductions and discussions — and, besides, there just wasn’t time. But, like every chapter throughout the country, the group did pose for a picture with a sign laying out their issue of choice, “Healthcare,” which will be collected and displayed on the Coffee Party USA website.
“I wish we had made a joint statement, and I guess the closest we got was standing beside a sign,” said Einstein, “which is a start.” He said he’ll give the group “another shot.” He hopes he’ll see some new faces at the next meeting.
The meeting of the Austin chapter, which organizer Paul Silver called “satisfying and civil,” stuck more closely to the script prescribed by Annabel Park and the Coffee Party USA higher-ups. They read the National Coffee Party Welcome, which included the Coffee Party Movement statement, the ground rules for common ground, the six purposes of the March 13th National Coffee Party Day and the Coffee party movement five phases plan. In the San Antonio group's two hours together, they never even made it to the welcome.
Robles said the chapter's next meeting, scheduled for March 27, will feature “better time management” and an emphasis on making sure “people check their party affiliation at the door” — a reference to much of the discussion being controlled by a coordinator for Move On San Antonio, the local chapter of liberal action group MoveOn.org.
At the meeting in Houston, there was another party crasher with strong connections to another political network — the Tea Party. If Dale Robertson, the president and founder of teaparty.org, hadn't identified himself, Houston Coffee Party organizer Tenisha Idowu said no one would've known who he was based on how he carried himself. “I let him know that it was about civil discourse, so we wouldn’t accept any shouting, ranting, signage — racially charged or otherwise,” Idowu said. “He actually came with a very positive attitude.”
Unlike Robertson’s Tea Party movement, which is a decentralized collection of entirely autonomous local groups, the Coffee Party USA is opting to build slowly and carefully with consistent branding and messaging. “The Tea Party is just an idea that people are plucking out of the air and making it what they and their local group want it to be,” said Robles.
Eventually, his group may back candidates, but that’s a decision for much farther down the road. “That’s probably one of the lessons we learned from the Tea Party,” Robles said. “They jumped into that really quickly. They got started and just started saying, ‘We want that candidate, we want that candidate!’ We’re not going to do that because there have been problems with how they’ve gone about it.”
Despite widespread news coverage, Robertson’s Tea Party compatriots did not have overwhelming success at the polls in Texas' March 2 primary. But Republican turnout was way up — more than double the party's 2006 numbers — a drive that, after a year’s worth of work, the groups can safely claim some credit for.
The Coffee Party is still in its infancy; it only recently made the move from Facebook to reality. And just what it grows up to be is anybody’s guess. Said Silver: “It is hard to calibrate how many people interested in the idea of the Coffee Party will be motivated to follow through with action.”